As soon as we booked our trip to Las Vegas, I started researching surrounding parks for an excursion. I quickly realized that I don’t think I’ve ever actually stepped foot in a desert before, so this would all be new territory for me (literally..). After perusing options to the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, it seemed silly to travel over three hours when there was so much to see just outside of Las Vegas’ city limits. Luckily, I quickly came across Red Rock Canyon National Park. A mere 20 minutes away from the city, this national park is full of incredible rock arrangements and rugged mountainous trails. It’s a super easy day trip that would still gives up plenty of time to #drinkallthedrinks and #eatalltheeats in Vegas that night. But, of course, as luck would have it, the government shut down (along with all national parks) for the exact 24 hours we were planning to go. Not willing to let politics ruin a good time, we quickly searched for a back up. Luckily, the kind people at Red Rock Canyon gave me numerous suggestions on where to spend the day. After sorting through the options, we chose Valley of Fire State Park (which is unaffiliated with government funding and would be staying open. #themoreyouknow). Similar to Red Rock Canyon, there are numerous colorful rock arrangements and short hikes throughout the identified desert area. The best part is that the entire park could be seen in a day, perfect for time constraints.
Only 50 minutes north of the city, we rented a car and hopped on the highway before 8am. While the temperatures in the park can soar well above 100 degrees, the cold spell we were experiencing meant we could comfortably wear light jackets and pants. We still brought lots of water and snacks which I’m glad we did since there was only one convenience store in-between our starting and ending points. We planned for a half day visit and scoped out which trails we wanted to explore ahead of time.
The trails range between 1-3 miles so it’s easy to fit in a few! Plus, the sites are gorgeous the entire time so it’s also a great option to walk as far as you’d like and then turn back. There is limited parking at each site so, as is the norm with these kind of parks, get there early! We had no problem parking in the off season but I imagine on warm days it can get crowded. Bonus note, most of the trail heads have bathrooms/porta-potties to use. Here’s the order we explored the park and we highly recommend making sure you hit up these three trails. They are all drastically different from one another and each offers a unique perspective of the park.
Rainbow Vista and Fire Canyon Overlook Trail
We had a surprisingly chilly start to do day so we were relieved to see that the majority of this out-and-back trail is in the sun. Nevertheless, there are heat warning signs everywhere so I imagine this isn’t the most pleasant during any other month. We started out walking through the softest sand and taking photos of the colored red boulders. We walked through the rocks and had minimal climbing off some ledges to finally reach an incredible overlook into the canyon. It actually came out of nowhere and had I not seen the camera sign, I may have just ventured on! While the trail is only 1.1 miles (.5ish out, .5ish back), it felt further since the soft sand was piling up in my sneakers like crazy. True story: I still wear these same sneakers to the gym at it’s over a month since our trip and I’m STILL finding sand on my work out mat. It’s annoying, but also brings me back to this day!
White Domes Trail
After hoping in the car, we drove about ten minutes to reach the trail located the furthest from the opening of the park. The park notes this as the most scenic drive which is easy to tell given it’s winding curves. It’s straight out of a car commercial. Make sure you take the time to stop for classic pictures of the twisting pavement! While the park doesn’t look small by any means, but is truly accessible in a single day. This was the most highly regarded hike so we were pumped! The views right off were stunning. We trekked down a narrow path that lead to towering rocks and cliffs overhead. We were greeted with a plaque that explained which movie scenes were filmed where. It was so cool to pose in spots we’d seen on the big screen! We ventured on for our journey and came to one of the most photographed places in the park (or so I like to believe). A narrow aisle between two red walls of rock. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, but this filled the void of all the Pinterest images I see of the narrow alleyways between the canyons. This was another mile walk that looped around the land. It was incredible to see how much this landscaped varied from the one before it. Next, we headed on to my favorite part of the day!
Fire Wave Trail
This surprised me as being the most unique experience of our time at the park! I was glad we saved it for last. After a short drive from the White Domes trailhead, we made it to the bottom of a giant cliff. We walked through the sand and avoided cacti (…mostly, Dan got pricked pretty good) and hiked around the large boulders. Suddenly, the sand started to disappear and we were left standing on sheets of multi-colored rock that appeared to expand for miles. The ground was striped with various shades of red and tan and dotted with large black stones throughout. It looked like something out of a dream! There are markers on the trail but given that it’s just a flat piece of stone, we wandered around aimlessly until we found ourselves lost and worked out way back to the ‘trail’. We’re not actually sure if we made it to the end of the path but we took a break on one of the large dome-shaped hills an soaked up all the desert glory. We walked about half a mile out and a half mile back and realized we were starving and should head back to the city.
As we exited the park, we made a quick detour to the well-labeled natural arch in the park. To be honest, this was an overrated site and we would have been fine skipping it. Luckily, we could view the arch from our car so we merely slowed down, appreciated nature’s work of art, and then got back on the road.
Have you ever been to the desert? Anyone else always look for the closest national park when they travel?